National Basketball Association
The NBA's sneakiest skill? Why Josh Giddey is the top inbounds passer
National Basketball Association

The NBA's sneakiest skill? Why Josh Giddey is the top inbounds passer

Updated Feb. 16, 2023 3:48 p.m. ET

Mark Daigneault, the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, had drawn up a play during the timeout. Josh Giddey, standing on the right sideline with 8.5 seconds left in the game and his team trailing by two, spotted a different opportunity across the court.

The Dallas Mavericks were face-guarding Kenrich Williams, an athletic Thunder forward stationed on the far elbow. Giddey and Williams locked eyes. Giddey's opened wide. No other instructions were needed, no signals given.

The referee handed Giddey the ball. Giddey held it, then fired a pass over the top of the Mavericks defense to a streaking Williams for a layup, sending the February 2022 contest to overtime.


"I saw them sleeping a little bit," Giddey recalled recently. "And I knew they wouldn't be expecting that."

Giddey, drafted sixth overall by the Thunder in 2020 out of Australia and now averaging 16 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game as a 20-year-old, has established himself as one of the NBA's up-and-coming stars. A 6-foot-8 ball-handler, he gives defenses fits. He's a dazzling passer. Few players knife their way into the paint as often. He's settled into his role as wingman to Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for an upstart squad that remains within striking distance of a playoff berth.

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Yet his greatest skill is the one he deployed that night against the Mavericks: He's perhaps the best inbounds passer in the NBA.

This season, Giddey, who will be participating Friday night in the NBA's All-Star Weekend Rising Stars Game, has dished out 35 assists off inbounds passes, according to data provided by NBA Advanced stats. No other player this season has tossed more than 26. In his two NBA seasons he's racked up 92 inbound assists, for an average of .88 per game. For a snapshot of just how impressive that is, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry are the only players who have recorded more inbound assists over the past three seasons, and neither has done so at a rate close to Giddey's.

Giddey's dishes come in all different shapes and sizes, from one-handed bullets thrown on a bounce through multiple defenders to lobs lofted into the hands of teammates darting to the rim. "We don't have a play on the side or under that doesn't allow him to pick something off if he sees it," Daigneault said.

Giddey said he developed his love for flinging inbounds passes as a teenager in his native Melbourne. He'd often play alongside his best friend, a smooth forward named Patrick Twigg. "He was the cutter in our offense and, you know, no one really scouts in junior basketball, so we'd run the same thing over and over and get, like, five or six layups a game," Giddey said. "That's when my passing really took off."

That feeling of catching a sleeping defense off guard, or skipping a bounce pass between four limbs, became infectious. It didn't matter what team he was playing for or if he was its best player. If there was an inbounds pass to be thrown, Giddey insisted on being the one to toss it. 

"If you put me in any of the other four spots on the court, I'd be a little iffy on what to do," he said.  

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Upon his arrival in the NBA, it didn't take long for the Thunder to recognize the sort of weapon Giddey could be from those spots. 

"We realized pretty early because he just started quarterbacking over there, he is pretty surgical in those situations and so tall that he can see over defenses," Daigneault said. "And we account for it with everything we do." 

Unlike other sports, where playbooks are guarded like classified documents, NBA teams understand that every opponent knows every one of their plays. This is especially the case when it comes to ATOs — after timeout sets. So, the way to create an advantage is by reacting to the defense's reaction. They go right, you go left, that type of thing. 

This is where Giddy excels. His processing begins in the huddle. "I'm always aware of where guys are going to cut and where they're going to be," he said. "So I've tried to kind of develop the different options in my head, you know, before they actually happen, and think about ahead of time where the defense is going to be."

Before the play, he'll scan the court to see how the defense is aligned. "If they're not paying attention to me, I'm gonna hit the guy with a quick back-cut or back screen," he said. His teammates don't need any waving or pointing. At this point, they know what to expect. 

"A lot of time it's just eye contact," Williams said. "He'll just give me a look and then throw it."

In recent weeks, Giddey has noticed that opponents have caught onto some of his tricks. "You can tell they've scouted it," he said. "Teams are starting to put a guy under the rim when we have a guy in the opposite corner, as a low man to kind of eliminate that basket."

Undeterred, Giddey is once again reacting to the reaction. In the first quarter of a January game against the 76ers, Philadelphia stationed James Harden by the basket. As soon as Giddey was given the ball on the right sideline, Gilgeous-Alexander cut to the rim, only for Harden to step up and wall him off. So Giddey tried something new. 

He lofted the ball across the court to the man Harden was guarding, Lu Dort, who had drifted up from the far corner to the right wing. Dort drilled the open 3. 

"Just trying to be proactive," Giddey said. "I'm always trying to be one step ahead."

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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